Saffron — Saffron is a spice derived from the flower of the saffron crocus (Crocus sativus), a species of crocus in the family Iridaceae. The flower has three stigmas, which are the distal ends of the plant’s carpels. Together with its style, the stalk connecting the stigmas to the rest of the plant, these components are often dried and used in cooking as a seasoning and colouring agent. Saffron, which has for decades been the world’s most expensive spice by weight, is native to Southwest Asia. It was first cultivated in the vicinity of Greece.
Saffron is characterised by a bitter taste and an iodoform- or hay-like fragrance; these are caused by the chemicals picrocrocin and safranal. It also contains a carotenoid dye, crocin, that gives food a rich golden-yellow hue. These traits make saffron a much-sought ingredient in many foods worldwide. Saffron also has medicinal applications.
The word saffron originated from the 12th-century Old French term safran, which derives from the Latin word safranum. Safranum is also related to the Italian zafferano and Spanish azafrán. Safranum comes from the Arabic, which means “yellow,” the name of the spice in Persian.
The saffron crocus thrives in climates similar to that of the Mediterranean maquis or the North American chaparral, where hot, dry summer breezes blow across arid and semi-arid lands. Nevertheless, the plant can tolerate cold winters, surviving frosts as cold as −10 °C (14 °F) and short periods of snow cover. However, if not grown in wet environments like Kashmir (where rainfall averages 1000–1500 mm annually), irrigation is needed—this is true in the saffron-growing regions of Greece (500 mm of rainfall annually) and Spain (400 mm). Rainfall timing is also key: generous spring rains followed by relatively dry summers are optimal. In addition, rainfall occurring immediately prior to flowering also boosts saffron yields; nevertheless, rainy or cold weather occurring during flowering promotes disease, thereby reducing yields. Persistently damp and hot conditions also harm yields, as do the digging actions of rabbits, rats, and birds. Parasites such as nematodes, leaf rusts, and corm rot also pose significant threats.
Several saffron cultivars are grown worldwide. Spain’s varieties, including the tradenames ‘Spanish Superior’ and ‘Creme’, are generally mellower in colour, flavour, and aroma; they are graded by government-imposed standards. Italian varieties are more potent, while the most intense varieties tend to be Macedonian Greek (Krokos Kozanis), Iranian, and Indian in origin. Westerners may face significant obstacles in obtaining saffron from India. For example, India has banned the export of high-grade saffron abroad. Aside from these, various “boutique” crops are available from New Zealand, France, Switzerland, England, the United States, and other countries, some organically grown. In the U.S., Pennsylvania Dutch saffron—known for its earthy notes—is marketed in small quantities.